To be the hero of your own story takes courage—sometimes more courage than we think we have. But courage is something we’re all born with, even when we don’t think it’s there.
Like the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz, we awaken to our courage when we act from a place deep within us more powerful than fear— a place of love.
Embarking on life review or life story writing requires courage—lots of it, and that’s just the beginning. Completing it and then handing it off to the next generation takes sustained courage.
But what if nobody reads it? What if nobody appreciates it? What if nobody cares?
That’s not for you to worry about. Your payoff is knowing you wrote it down and that your story is there, between two covers, in your own words— and in your own voice—preserved for perpetuity. Someone someday will come upon your story and will be inspired, motivated, guided and perhaps even healed by your story.
You will have done your part. It’s up to the next generation to do theirs. Our faith in humanity, and in life itself, tells us they will be guided by its Light, in their own way.
Azim Khamisa showed enormous courage when he first learned of his son’s death in January of 1995. Twenty-two-year-old college student Tariq Khamisa was delivering pizza in San Diego, CA, when he was shot and killed by Tony Hicks, a 14-year-old gang member.
Azim was aware he had a choice. He could give in to the dark emotions of anger and bitterness he was feeling and choose revenge; or he could make another choice. He could choose another path through his grief and pain that would eventually lead to compassion and forgiveness for himself, for his son’s killer, and later, for thousands of others around the world inspired by his story.
Nicholas Gage had anger and revenge in his heart when he quit his job as an investigative reporter and foreign correspondent for The New York Times in the early 1980s. At age 41, he moved his wife and three young children from New York City to Athens, Greece, so he could track down those responsible for the murder of his mother Eleni Gatzoyiannis during the Greek civil war in 1948.
His journey that began with the courage it took to face his pain is told in his gripping memoir Eleni. His story ends with his choice of another way to honor his mother’s life than to take the life of the man responsible for her death.
When he finally came face to face with a man named Katis he had despised for 32 years with a fierce intention to kill, he found, at the end, he couldn’t do it. He knew by killing Katis he would ruin the lives of his wife and children.
The cycle of violence that had ripped his birth family apart would continue to plague the next generation, and the next, unless he had the courage, and compassion, to stop it.
“Killing Katis would give me relief from the pain that had filled me for so many years,” he writes in the last paragraph of his book.“But as much as I want that satisfaction, I’ve learned that I can’t do it. My mother’s love, the primary impulse of her life, still binds us together, often surrounding me like a tangible presence. Summoning the hate necessary to kill Katis would sever that bridge connecting us and destroy the part of me that is most like Eleni.”
Mattie Stepanek lived only 14 years but his messages of courage and compassion continue to inspire people through his books and poetry, including Journey Through Heartsongs. President Jimmy Carter delivered the eulogy at Mattie’s funeral on June 28, 2004.
Mattie was the youngest of four children, each of whom inherited a rare and fatal neuromuscular disease called dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy. His mother, Jeni, did not know she carried the gene. She was diagnosed as an adult, after all four of the children were born. Mattie’s siblings — Katie, Stevie, and Jamie — all died before age four.
Mattie was grateful for each and every day of his life and lived them all to the fullest in spite of enormous health challenges. He had what his mother called ‘humble pride.’ Shortly before he turned six, Mattie and his mother appeared on the TODAY Show with Katie Couric.
“You started to read, I understand, when you were three years old,” said Ms. Couric. “Last year you read more than 1,000 books. Is that right?”
“Actually, it was 1,250 books,” answered Mattie, who dictated his poetry aloud so his mother could write it out longhand. He said his poetry was inspired by his brothers and sisters who died before him so their messages of love, courage, peace and compassion could go out to the world.
Not everyone has life stories about overcoming tragedy and loss with the heroic courage and compassion required by Azim, Nicholas and Mattie. By listening to the news, we know plenty of everyday heroes are out there—lives caught in poverty and war, families whose homes are destroyed by fire and flood, innocent victims of crime, violence, accident and illness.
Hearing these stories inspires all of us to do what we can to bring peace and compassion to our world. As we all know, peace in our world can only begin with peace in each and every one of us. Life story writing often brings peace, freedom and increased consciousness to people’s lives.
Our lives affect other lives by the ripple effect. We all have at least one timeless or pivotal story about how we learned courage and compassion that led to forgiveness, and how that one experience may have changed our life, and the lives of others around us.
Perhaps this is a story you could write as a priceless gift only you can give to a child or grandchild. This story would be like the parable Jesus told about the merchant in Matthew 13:46 of the Bible who sold all of his worldly goods in order to purchase the ‘pearl of great price,’ a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven.
In addition to courage, life review or life story writing also requires compassion, for self and others. Often, when we look back on our lives, we recall times we wish we had behaved differently. We may feel some guilt or remorse for choices we made that may have hurt someone else. We may still hold some anger or bitterness toward others we’ve never forgiven.
Painful memories keep coming back and avoidance of pain keeps us from accepting pain as part of life, forgiving ourselves and others and then letting the pain go. Writing such stories can begin the healing process. If you still feel stuck in negative emotions while writing your story, writing in a journal first about your thoughts and feelings is an effective way to express your painful emotions so you can better understand how to release them.
In his book, Healing Into Life and Death, Stephen Levine writes a moving account of a woman hospitalized with bone cancer. Her physical and emotional pain were so unbearable she responded to her nurses’s attempts to help her with palpable anger and verbal abuse. She was so bitter toward life and everyone around her that they all avoided her as much as possible.
One night, her pain became so intense that she had no choice but to surrender to it. In doing so, she released years of angry emotions she had allowed to build up inside her.
The woman later said that before her epiphany, she saw the unbearable pain as only ‘her pain.’ Afterward, it became ‘the pain,’ the universal pain that is part of the human experience. She moved from fear and suffering to compassion and caring for others. Her life, and her persona, changed.
When she died some weeks later, she died a healed woman. She wasn’t cured of cancer but she was healed spiritually and emotionally. In those few weeks before her death, her room became a place where nurses would come on their break because it was a room so filled with love.
The lesson this woman learned has been passed on to us as we hear her story. Once we tap into our own innate courage with a willingness to face our personal pain and suffering, we become compassionate toward the pain and suffering of others which leads us to forgiveness. When we touch another’s pain with fear, we feel pity for them, and no one wants to be pitied. When we touch another’s pain with love, this is compassion and compassion leads to healing.
A hero learns from experience that love is stronger than fear. To overcome fear, one must choose between fear and love. Fear is judgment that your story isn’t worth telling, you are not a writer, you have nothing to say and nobody would be interested anyway.
Love is heart energy that fuels an awareness of the preciousness of life—your life—and your desire to leave a legacy of love from all you have learned in your lifetime for generations to come. Your love of life overcomes your fear of not being enough, or being forgotten after you’re gone.
Once you have crossed this threshold from fear to love, your perspective on life softens. You are able to accept what has happened to you as a series of experiences you had to go through to become who you are today. Our thoughts create our reality; therefore, our thoughts about our stories and past experiences help to shape our legacy.
Reflecting on your life experiences and harvesting the wisdom, compassion and understanding gained throughout your life in personal stories preserved for generations to come is called generativity.
Generativity is a term coined by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson in 1950 to denote “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.”
Erikson is also known for his eight stages of psychosocial development through which a healthy human being should pass from infancy to late adulthood. In each stage, the individual confronts and learns to master new challenges.
These stages of learning include: 0 to 2 years, hope and trust; 2 to 4 years, autonomy and will; 4 to 5 years, initiative and purpose; 5 to 12 years, competence and industry; 13 to 19 years, fidelity and identity; 20 to 24 years, love and intimacy; 25 to 64 years, care and generativity; 65 to death, ego integrity and wisdom.
Drawing on Erikson’s wisdom, John Kotre, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and author of Make It Count: How to Generate a Legacy That Gives Meaning to Your Life, and White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory, has created an outline describing the generative process as a lifetime process.
The Generative Process includes . . .
- the courage to face the past;
- the courage to find one’s unique voice;
- the courage to create that which expresses your uniqueness;
- discernment to pass on the good of one’s creation and release the bad;
- the ability to let go of one’s creation when the time comes;
- the acceptance by faith that life is basically good and that nothing is final, not even death.
In his essay titled, Generativity and the Gift of Meaning, he asks, “Will any sizable number of us in the second half of life be able to make the transition from Me to Beyond Me? Will we be able to see our moral status as more than that of bearers of entitlements?”
Which brings us back to where we started—with the courage and heart to begin the work only you can do by passing on the stories of how you learned compassion, forgiveness, resilience, resourcefulness and commitment in the sacred school of life.
Depending on your age, you might also write stories about how you learned each one of Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development as you moved through them. Stories about how you learned or discovered hope and trust, autonomy and will, competence, fidelity, love and wisdom— would make a wonderful gift for loved ones of all ages. The younger ones will be inspired and motivated to learn them, too, and the older ones may be motivated to begin writing, as well.
Good luck and God bless! You can and will do it!